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Cakravartin Kingship: Between Theory and Practice in Medieval Sri Lanka

Monday, January 30, 2023 at 12:15pm

Uris Hall, G02
Central Campus

Talk by Bruno Shirley (Asian Studies, Cornell University)

In the twelfth century, the Buddhist monarchs of Poḷonnaruva began to claim to be cakravartins: literally "wheel turners," but usually translated as “universal kings.” Scholars have reasonably assumed that a direct line can be drawn backward from these cakravartin claims, and those ubiquitously made in later Buddhist polities across Southern Asia, to a supposed origin in Pali Canonical texts. I argue, however, that Poḷonnaruva’s s cakravartin claims represented a radical disjuncture in Pali Buddhist models of kingship. These claims were not modeled on canonical cakravartins, nor on historical monarchs like Aśoka; instead, they represented participation in what I call a transregional and trans-religious community of shared practice. It was only after and in response to these practices, I show, that scholars like Guruḷugōmin and Siddhattha Thero developed a theoretical framework for Buddhist cakravartinship, with implications for later developments in Southeast Asia.

Bruno M. Shirley is a Ph.D. candidate in Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture, Cornell University. His work focuses on Buddhist ideas about gender, politics, and devotion in the early second-millennium Indian Ocean, particularly in Sri Lanka.

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Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Asian Studies, Southeast Asia Program, South Asia Program, Religious Studies Program


asianstudiescal, Medieval studies, cashum, fgsscal



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